Monday, April 25, 2016

This Is How To Do It

I'm always eager to share the little seeds or little works of the Holy Spirit wherever I find them.  Whether they are unexpected conversions, grace-filled stories or fledgling institutes and apostolates.  I was recently edified by reading about the St. Thomas Aquinas House in inner-city Detroit.  It's a community of young men who live together, chant parts of the office, share catechesis and training in the old mass, and engage in door-to-door evangelization.  They are religious brothers (called "canons") who take vows, and there is the opportunity to study for the priesthood for those who are called.  I know the area they serve, as I returned to the faith in 2007 through a church they serve at, St. Josaphat's.

Now that's what I call a church!

If the Canons of St. Thomas Aquinas had been at St. Josaphat's back in 2007/2008 I might have tried to join them, or at least I would have followed them around like a lost puppy.  You see, in the first years after my conversion I was basically on my own.  I felt God's closeness, but I never found a priest who could take me under his wing, nor did I find any peers to share the labors in the walk with Christ.  Perhaps I was meant to be alone so as to cling ever closer to Jesus, but that's not God's usual plan.  Since heaven itself is fellowship and union, God intends for us to walk in faith together here and now.  But this is especially difficult for young men, who often have an independent spirit and don't see their place in graying parishes with few of their peers.

Yet there are few things more considerable than a band of young men joined together in a common purpose.  I learned this lesson in a maximum security prison where I witnessed dangerous convicts brought together in peace (more or less) under the "convict code": a shared worldview of discipline, justice and brotherhood.  The convict code made prison bearable and safe (at least for those who adhered to the code), and it laid the groundwork for deep friendships.

God desires to bring young men together, and for a higher calling than mere convict justice!  I've noticed that a hallmark of many saints is that they served as a magnet for other young men.  There are the obvious examples: Sts. Francis and Dominic, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Philip Neri in devastated Rome, and then lesser known examples like St. Paul of the Cross or St. Clement Hofbauer at St. Benno's in Warsaw.  Even as the founders became elderly (like Philip Neri and John Henry Newman) they continued to attract dedicated young men.  These fellowships produced many other saints since "iron sharpens iron", and the effects of their friendships even resound to our own day.

The Canons Regular of Thomas Aquinas on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land

I'm grateful that the archbishop of Detroit and other good bishops have welcomed new communities and new approaches to evangelization.  So long as they are deeply rooted in the Church and her wisdom throughout the centuries, they will bear fruit.  Some are unconventional like Fr. Jacques Philippe's Community of the Beatitudes or the Fraternity of the Holy Apostles (which I wrote about here) or even this little apostolate.  The Church has many great needs today, and in many places she is looking out upon a "Devastated Vineyard" (to borrow the title from a Dietrich Von Hildebrand book).  Now is not the time to get in the way of the Holy Spirit!

The Canons of Thomas Aquinas have the right approach to re-seed the vineyard.  They offer the wisdom of a deep understanding of our faith, the courage to evangelize, the charity and solidarity of brotherhood, and the heavenly beauty of our ancient liturgy and arts.  May the face of Christ shine upon them!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Fix Your Gaze on the Supernatural, Part II

If I wrote with conviction in the first part of this post, it's because I was leaning heavily on a remarkable dream from six years ago.  It has always struck me as more than just a dream--or else I wouldn't bother to write about it.  Though I was asleep, it was an experience of great clarity and vividness of color and image.  It also progressed at a patient pace, as though I was supposed to savor and remember every little detail.  Simply put, the whole experience felt as though God was showing me something.

The day of the dream had been a grueling one.  I had no children at the time, and so I was able to spend six hours outside of the Beaverton Planned Parenthood with the 40 Days for Life apostolate.  During those hours, we prayed, shared faith stories, talked to the curious, and absorbed the blows of the angry.  For whatever reason, those who resented us displayed even greater anger and confrontation than normal.  Even more sorrowful, several of the post-abortive women were visibly traumatized by their abortion.  One Indian woman pushed away from her husband and children and vomited in the bushes.  Another woman could barely walk, and her boyfriend, a successful-looking urban professional, looked simultaneously helpless and guilty.  I thought they looked like Adam and Eve, newly wounded, limping away from the Garden of Life.  I guess I felt helpless too, overwhelmed with the sin and suffering, and so the dream mercifully followed.

The dream began with a distant view of a knoll set in a fertile valley.  On the knoll was a glorified Christ, bloodlessly reigning from his cross.  I understood that the valley was lush and fertile only because His cross was planted there.  Then the image zoomed forward and I saw myself behind the cross, half sitting, half-reclining in his crucified shadow.  I hoped I would always remain there, in his refuge.  Then the view shifted, and I was looking out from my seat behind the cross.  I looked at the wood of the cross, smooth and strong, a tree like steel.  Then our Lord's powerful thigh was before my eyes.  It was tan and muscular like an ancient Roman sculptor's ideal, though Christ's body was not like marble but was coursing with life.

I desired to lift my gaze upward along Jesus' body, but couldn't do so.  All I was allowed to see was a leg.  Then my view was directed to the sky and great clouds assembled, covering every inch of skyline.  It began to rain, a torrent of drops drenching every thing in sight.  It continued to rain and rain and rain.  The drops dripped in steady beads from my brow and cascaded down the cross, forming streams down our Lord's leg.  I followed the stream down Christ's leg and saw something remarkable take place in the earth.

A myriad of rivulets were formed from the rain water, and moved with tiny purpose.  It was evident that this wasn't ordinary rain water.  All of my attention was now focused on the innumerable paths of the water. The water was patient, and able to work its way along every crack and crevice in the ground.  It wound its way past tiny pebbles, over gleaming minerals, and along hard or soft soil.  I thought of the Vidi Aquam: "I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple [Christ's body], and all those to whom the water came were saved."  Then I recalled St. Faustina's diary, and the Divine Mercy image of blood and water.

After watching the waters for some time, I looked up towards the clouds.  I knew the clouds would never stop pouring.  They would never empty or move on.  The rain drops glistened and fell like tiny parachutes.  They were uncountable, a superabundance of grace from heaven.  The world was saturated with grace, and nothing was untouched by Christ.

When I awoke, I regained my hope for the poor men and women I had seen leaving Planned Parenthood.  Their very misery was itself a grace trying to crack their hardened hearts.  Even vomiting in the bushes can be a grace!  I knew God would pursue them through every twist and turn of their lives, calling them back to Him.

I was sure that our Christian witness outside of Planned Parenthood was a little trickle of grace through many lives.  We might seem like failures at the purely natural level, and we won't know the fruits of our charity this side of heaven.  I was also grateful that the Lord was with the 40 Days for Life crew, placing his faithful witnesses in the shadow of his cross, where we reclined. We've taken blows from every side, but God is with us.  We know that to many of our fellow catholics and even clergy, we are an embarrassment, an expression of "zealotry" or an "imbalanced faith".  But that's okay.  One person's 'zealot' is another man's 'fool for Christ'.  Perhaps it's time for the critics to put on their supernatural glasses.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fix Your Gaze on the Supernatural, Part I

During the nine years since my conversion (how time flies!), I have always returned to One Big Idea: the pre-eminence of the supernatural over the natural; or the notion that the real action, the real narrative of our lives takes place at the supernatural level.  This idea flies in the face of contemporary wisdom.  Whereas the Catholic Faith was once at the center of how people understood their world (with concepts like grace, sin, providence, intercession, atonement), it has been surrendered to the margins.  We now go about our lives in our ordinary way, feeding the demands of the body and skimming the surface of life.  Meanwhile God seems to play the good Deist, rarely intervening from his hidden heaven, though he might show up when there's a crisis or at death.

It's very easy to slide into the naturalist trap, reducing life to the things of the senses, riding the great carnival of modern life.  I was once a doggedly naturalist doctoral student whose guiding light was the materialist and skeptic, David Hume. My dissertation was an attempt to vindicate David Hume's "evolutionary" account of the purely natural origins of justice by examining how norms of convict justice (the "convict code") developed in prison.  That's a complicated way of saying that I didn't think we needed God for anything, not even a grounding in ethics!  Yet only God's grace could turn a die-hard naturalist into a zealot for the unseen kingdom of God, and this is a lovely joke to God and a soar-spot to demons.

In point of fact, there can never be a purely natural account of human affairs since our lives are drenched in the supernatural: we have eternal souls that are simultaneously distorted by original sin and yet hard-wired to seek God or at least shadowy idols.  Every day we experience both divine grace and demonic temptation.  Some of us are transformed by grace going from "strength to strength" while others fall into a labyrinth of the Devil's own making.  Since it's easier to see with the eyes of the body than the eyes of faith, we miss these truths because God has us work out our salvation amidst the noisy, humdrum world.  Yet it is God's genius that he bestows his grace in the contours of our material lives, along a subtle providence that is often missed.

Grace is everywhere, if you look for it.

Even after my conversion, I clung to some naturalist prejudices.  Naturalism dies hard.  Actually, it brings death with it. Many religious orders have now died or are dying because they took a naturalist turn some fifty years ago.  They came out of the cloister, became more "active", ignored their Divine Office and prayer (since the effects of prayer are usually unseen), they focused on socio-economic/structural causes of human misery instead of personal sin, etc.  They told classic naturalist stories like re-interpreting the feeding of the five thousand as a "miracle of sharing" rather than a miraculous multiplication of food by the Incarnate Word.  They stopped using supernatural words like "sin", and spoke of how "values" change (they usually meant sexual ethics) as conditions change and people come to a "greater understanding".  The Jesuit order has been typical of the "naturalist turn", and their order has been cut in half in the last fifty years.  Meanwhile, those Jesuits who remain average somewhere between 65-70 years of age.  By contrast, read this sermon from a growing religious order full of remarkable young men.  It might be the best sermon I've ever read, and it's a clarion call for living the faith with "supernatural glasses".  It also captures how street evangelists feel while walking a post-Christian city: "We are the Lord's gentle spies!"

Grace is Everywhere

Those with faith know that without God we can do nothing.  Take the other day for example.  While walking the streets in my tunic, a street-wise young black man approached me and said, somewhat embarrassed, "Hey, I know you don't know me and all, but can you pray for me?  I really need help with some things right now."  He told me his name was 'Merlin'. Now I believe that it was grace that gave Merlin the courage to stop and talk to me.  Why?  Because there were all sorts of natural barriers to dissuade him from making such a request.  Men don't like to ask other men for help--especially strangers.  Moreover, there is still an uneasy racial divide in this country, and it often leads to social discomfort or even suspicion. Finally, his request was an acknowledgment of weakness, a confession that "I can't handle my life right now". Nobody likes to ask a stranger for that kind of help!  Bless young Merlin for responding to God's prompting, and may he go from grace to grace.

I witnessed another work of grace during the Mass of the Lord's Supper, on Holy Thursday.  I have a 13 month old baby boy, Gabriel, who loves to watch people, but he is shy and doesn't like to be held or touched by "strangers".  He even used to wail in fright whenever the poor priest would reach out his hand in a blessing.  After I received communion on Holy Thursday he wanted to see the Good Shepherd statue in the back of the church.  I lifted him up for a look, and he stretched out in delight, grasping the hand of Jesus.  Then he leaned in three times and kissed the hand.  My wife and I were stupefied.  But little Gabriel wasn't done yet.  Then he stretched further up and kissed the face of Jesus several more times.  Finally, he brought us back down to earth by moving over to the lamb on Jesus' shoulder and declaring, "Kitty cat."  He thinks all animals are kitty cats, and it's one of the few words he can say.  While not everything "out of the mouth of babes" is reliable, Gabriel gave us a lesson in child-like wisdom and tenderness.

He greeted Jesus with a kiss of love

Sometimes grace can be painful.  Take the example of my recently deceased grandmother.  Before her sudden death, God gave her two important graces to try to win a repentance of heart.  You see, Grandma (and Grandpa) was not a lovely person.  She was estranged from both of her children for decades.  She rarely had a generous word for others, and liked to say things like, "I LOVE money.  I simply love money."  She could be a bold sinner. A few months ago I mailed her a relic card of St. Charbel blessed in holy oil from a recent tour of his relics.  She gave back the card with a tart remark, "I don't like beards."  You get the idea.  Yet God pursued her to the end, as He always does.  First, he arranged that their wallet was stolen or lost when a furnace repairman visited the house.  This sent my grandparents into bizarre, paranoid fantasies that the repairman was going to return to the house to finish the job: stealing their car, jewelry, mink coats and more.  Things got worse when I reported the lost wallet to the furnace company.  Now they imagined the repairman would return and burn their house down out of vengeance, or "throw acid" in my grandmother's face. Somewhere in this terrible farce was a great grace: God was letting my grandparents stew in the effects of their grave sin.  He was asking them: "Do you really want to spend eternity like this?  In paroxysms of anxiety, alienation, recrimination, hatred and terror?  That is what Hell is like, and that's what you have chosen so far."  Grandma eventually got the idea and began to take stock of things.  Then she was given another grace: her sister (who also worshipped mammon) unexpectedly died.  This shook her again, leading to another round of soul-searching.  Finally, she also died unexpectedly, though we all assumed she would live another 15 years.  God had gone out of his way to win her back, even though she didn't deserve it.  Grace is like that.  Love is like that.

To be continued...